Everyone finds the social media outlet they like. For my tour business, I have a rather small presence on Twitter and Facebook. Truth be told, I have a relatively small business presence on Instagram, if you consider that a focused effort to market my tours.
But I've grown to like Instagram, and each day post a photo of something intriguing to me that I see in neighborhoods where I lead tours: mostly in Brooklyn, but occasionally in Long Island City/Sunnyside, Queens, or the Lower East Side in Manhattan. A selection is below.
(Updated April 2020) Beyond the very comprehensive FAQ about my tour business, I here address some broader questions that should be useful to both my tour clients as well as many others new to Brooklyn. I'll add to the list as more suggestions come in.
1) We can see "Brooklyn" in a few hours, or a day, right?
Well, some of Brooklyn. Remember, Brooklyn's bigger than Paris (within the peripherique), both in population and in area. My "Brooklyn 101" tour covers pieces of four or five neighborhoods, but only pieces, in 3 hours. My "Brooklyn 202" tour adds two neighborhoods and 2 hours.
Both are significant introductions, but just that. The longest tour I've led has been nine hours, but even that was limited. A vehicle can cover more ground, but that sacrifices time walking around. And even those "Brooklyn Loop" bus tours are pretty limited.
Please recognize that the best way to see Brooklyn is to visit adjacent or nearby neighborhoods, not to hopscotch among neighborhoods in a short time. Also keep in mind that some neighborhoods are so large that they have distinct sub-sections.
2) "Brooklyn" is identified as... rich, poor, cool, uncool, ethnic nostalgia, classic row-house streets, hipsters, striving immigrants, hip-hop authenticity, artisanal "makers."
Brooklyn would be the country's fourth-largest city by population. So it "contains multitudes," as Walt Whitman might say. Embrace the diversity, embrace the opportunity. (And recognize that gentrification tensions can promote satire, as in the #AirBnBodega pictured above.)
3) What's the best way to see Brooklyn? Will we fail unless we take your tour/read this book/use this app?
There are many ways to experience Brooklyn, and each has trade-offs in terms of cost, time, and insight. You can take the subway and just wander. You can take a tour bus. Maybe your friend's cousin can take you around, or you can join a large-group scheduled walking tour. You can use an app, a web site, or a guidebook. Or you can hire a private guide like me and get more personalized attention and specialized knowledge.
4) If it's a "Brooklyn pizza" or a "Brooklyn bagel," it must be good.
No, not necessarily. Not everything made/bought here has special magic "Brooklyn" pixie dust. You might (sorry) get better quality in Manhattan or elsewhere. Ask around, or do some research. That said, competition means the baseline should be relatively high.
5) Brooklyn has "a Jewish neighborhood," right?
Brooklyn has many Jewish neighborhoods. Some are Hasidic, some are Modern Orthodox. Most are Ashkenazi, but one is Sephardic. And those are the visibly religious Jewish neighborhoods. Other mixed neighborhoods have Jewish institutions and populations, while others may have former Jewish institutions transformed into churches or other functions.
6) Brooklyn has some "ethnic neighborhoods," right?
Brooklyn has many "ethnic neighborhoods." It has neighborhoods with multiple ethnic groups, some aligned by language, some very different. We might just call them "neighborhoods." For example, the western part of Sunset Park is significantly Spanish-speaking, thanks to the migration (not immigration) of Americans from Puerto Rico, and the subsequent immigration of people from Mexico and Central America. The eastern part of Sunset Park is today significantly Chinese, moving into a neighborhood with Norwegian, Finnish, and Polish roots. Bensonhurst still has Italian roots, but now is significantly Chinese and "Russian" (which is a shorthand for "Former Soviet Union").
7) If we visit Brooklyn, it's easy to see Coney Island.
Well, Coney Island's well worth a visit, at least in decent weather, but it's a long trip--the end of four subway lines and a lengthy vehicle ride from many places in Brooklyn. It's terrific in summer. It's easy to get to, but you must factor in travel time, if you want to see other neighborhoods.
8) We only want to see one neighborhood (say, East Flatbush, or Bensonhurst), because that's where Aunt Bea grew up.
Unless you're really tight on time, I call that shortsighted. Most destinations in Brooklyn have a lot of interesting things we can see along the way, or via a brief diversion.
9) We can see all of "Brooklyn"--classic brownstone streets, hipsters, hip-hop, ethnic variety, new retail--in just one neighborhood.
Not exactly. (Remember those "trade-offs" I mentioned.) Sometimes the most settled, classic neighborhoods (here's looking at you, Brooklyn Heights) don't exactly have cutting-edge shopping or ethnic variety. You have to put a couple of neighborhoods together. A place like Williamsburg has a lot of the (now blunted) cutting-edge but almost no classic streets.
10) We can see "ethnic Brooklyn" and "hipster Brooklyn" in just one neighborhood.
Maybe, but only if you define "ethnic Brooklyn" narrowly. Greenpoint has a significant Polish community and an influx of newbies. The western part of Williamsburg has a Satmar Hasidic enclave and, north of it, the epicenter of gentrification. (There are Latino and Italian communities to the east.) Crown Heights has a Lubavitcher Hasidic enclave, as well as a West Indian community, as well as hipsters moving in. But do note these are very much partially "ethnic neighborhoods."
11) If we get a hotel (or room) in Brooklyn, it's easier to explore Brooklyn.
That depends. Some hotels are way off the beaten track. Others are deep in one corner of Brooklyn, and position you to visit one set of nearby neighborhoods, but not another cluster. Always check. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant are huge, and a place in those neighborhoods may be far from area attractions. Location matters for transit, safety, and amenities. Even learning--say, via AirBnB--that you'd be on a specific named street or avenue may be meaningless without a cross street.
12) A hotel's name is a reliable geographic signifier.
Actually, no. A hotel named "Prospect Park South" was not in the neighborhood Prospect Park South, nor was it directly south of Prospect Park. One "Brooklyn Downtown" hotel is a good ways from Downtown Brooklyn. The "Arena Hotel" isn't close enough to the Barclays Center to merit the moniker. That doesn't make such hotels unreasonable values, compared to alternatives, if you're comfortable using transit.
13) Neighborhood XYZ is "dangerous."
Brooklyn, especially the areas most visitors go, is generally safe, and has been getting safer. Avoid generalizations. That said, everyone has a different threshold. Perhaps Brooklyn's hottest, buzziest retail strip is Franklin Avenue in western Crown Heights. It's also had a couple of daytime shootings. That has stopped exactly nothing. Do check Spotcrime (and also recognize that many incidents happen in overnight hours, and among acquaintances). Use Google Street View.
14) We don't want to take the subway because it looked scary in the movie we saw or when we visited in the 1980s.
Most New Yorkers take the subway. It's usually the fastest, cheapest way to get around, and it's full of people. So the small but not unknown chance of problems--some fraction of people are crazy/angry/smelly, so avoid confrontations--is generally outweighed by expediency.
15) We can't use our MetroCard on the bus.
Sure you can. That opens up a whole new universe of travel.
As I was watching the recent Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, about a Brooklyn lawyer who defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and then negotiated an exchange for a captured American pilot in the midst of the Cold War, I noticed something: lawyer James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) and family lived in a house on a Brooklyn street quite familiar to me.
Indeed, as this Brooklyn Eagle article explains, they rented a gorgeous turn-of-the-century home in Ditmas Park, not all that far from where I once lived (in a modest apartment), and close to--or, potentially part of--the route for my (Not Just) Victorian Flatbush tour.
(The house is on E. 17th Street between Dorchester and Ditmas avenues, and sold for a mere $1.9 million in 2007.)
The Donovan family actually did not live in Ditmas Park/Flatbush during the time depicted in the film--though this neighborhood is understandably a favorite for filmmakers and TV producers because it offers grand houses, reasonable space for street parking, and a lower density of neighbors who might get annoyed.
According to Philip J. Bigger's biography Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan, by 1957, five years before the exchange of prisoners, the Donovans had moved from a freestanding home in Bay Ridge, in southwest Brooklyn, "to a fifteen-room, bi-level apartment at 35 Prospect Park West... overlooking Prospect Park."
Wowza. As described on Streeteasy, "designed by the architect Emory Roth, 35 Prospect Park West is a white-glove co-op building with a full maintenance staff and private basement storage for each unit. The 1929 building is home to 74 units over 18 stories, comprised of single floor two bedrooms and spacious duplex four and five bedrooms."
It's located (map) between Montgomery Place and Garfield Place--and on the routes for my Brooklyn 101, Brooklyn 202, and Park Slope tours. In case you're wondering, a 9-room duplex there sold for more than $5 million in 2008. So it's an even more impressive piece of real estate than the one they used for filming. Also, I'm sure there would be way more hurdles for anyone attempting to film there.
The Brooklyn Eagle article, by the way, notes that the film was also shot in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.
This article from Business Insider (via The Real Deal) is fascinating: it shows the most common languages in New York City beyond English and Spanish, in each Community District, which contain 200,000 to 300,000 people. Brooklyn has significant numbers of Chinese, French Creole, Yiddish, and Russian speakers.
Another map shows that Chinese, French Creole, and Yiddish actually outpace Spanish (the most common language other than English) in five Brooklyn Community Districts.
In preparing for my Williamsburg tour Sunday (via the Municipal Art Society), I noticed the spiffy, six-story loft building 573 Metropolitan, which StreetEasy (and the building web site) tells me is "Williamsburg’s newest luxury loft building!" One-bedroom units rent for more than $3,000.
I've spent enough time in Williamsburg to know there's a lot more to the story--and there is. As with more than a few luxury lofts, 573 Metropolitan Avenue housed humble manufacturing businesses, and for at least some of the time could have been called a sweatshop.
The first reference to that address I could find, in the 1914 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, identified the location as a factory. But that had to be a predecessor building, since StreetEasy dates the building to 1920, a time of the area's growth, just 17 years after the Williamsburg Bridge started pouring people into the neighborhood from the Lower East Side and four years before the subway (now the L train) opened up nearby at Lorimer Street. (The G train stop didn't come until 1937.)
Perusing the Daily Eagle, I saw a 1937 advertisement for canvassers to sell floor lamps, a 1940 business opportunity to buy a 5,000 square foot garment factory (one floor?), a 1948 ad seeking operators for ladies coats, and a 1950 ad seeking operators for Jo-Ann Sportswear.
In 1942, according to the Daily Eagle, the Metropolitan Cloak Company at that location was enjoined by the court for wage and hour violations. In 1957, labor racketeering charges were filed involving a bogus garment workers union and the Vogue Knitwear company, according to the New York Times.
As of 1982, the D&L Dress Co. still operated at 573 Metropolitan. Fast forward to 2001, where when a New York Post article explained how "18 members of the The Mexican Boys gang were arrested last night on weapons and unlawful-assembly charges after a raid in Brooklyn" at a laundromat at 573 Metropolitan Avenue. (Surely that's an adjacent structure, with the same address.)
Then came the "art center and studio/co-working space 3rd Ward," as described by Hyperallergic's Mostafa Hedday, which leased 573 Metropolitan in 2005, and saw it shut down on Oct. 15, 2010 for code violations, three years before 3rd Ward itself crashed and burned.
Free Williamsburg described the shutdown, quoting a former tenant and employee of 3rd Ward as describing it as a "converted sweatshop" that had not been properly and safely converted. (The then-owner of the building, who has sold it to an LLC he may--or may not--control, also came in for criticism.)
Last June, the Times announced an 18-month lease, at $24/square foot, for State Senator Martin M. Dilan "for 2,000 square feet on the lower level of this six-story building, which was gut renovated in 2011." And this area around the second L stop in Williamsburg is home to a new wave of development. The factory jobs? They've either moved deeper into industrial Brooklyn or, more likely, gone completely. For the current building's status, see 573Metropolitan.com.
I recently saw the touching film Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, based on the novel by Colm Toibin.
Yes, it's primarily a portrait of the challenges a young woman from Ireland faced in truly leaving home and family, and finding her path in New York City, not without some twists and complications.
(And see Richard Brody's critical review, in which he observes, "But if Brooklyn greenwashes Ireland, it utterly sanitizes Brooklyn.")
But what was astounding, for contemporary observers of the borough, is that the boardinghouse that young Eilis Lacey lived in was a brownstone on Clinton Street. (Google Books tells me no address is listed, and Clinton Street is mentioned exactly twice.)
Clinton Street today runs from Carroll Gardens through Cobble Hill, then across Atlantic Avenue into Brooklyn Heights. Presumably Eilis and her beau Tony were walking around the part that today is called Carroll Gardens but back then was just undifferentiated "South Brooklyn," before new residents and the real estate industry pushed for new names.
Back then, it was a working-class zone. Today, those brownstones are very, very precious.
By the way, according to a Crowley interview with Deadline Hollywood, they shot for exactly one day in the brownstone district and one day in Coney Island, with the rest of the shoot in Montreal to save money!
Here's another relevant Crowley quote, from Brooklyn magazine: "Modern-day Brooklyn is so different from 50s Brooklyn that the art department budget would be astronomical."
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.